August 7, 2018

The comforts and discomforts of Sukkot

This week we will be celebrating the festival of Sukkot, and though Sukkot in Israel is truly magnificent, the reason we dwell in our sukkot is not to provide us with physical pleasure (see Tur, Orach Chaim 625). Instead, its purpose is to show our faith in G-d.

In fact, it would seem that part of the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah demands that we dwell on what took place during the 40-year journey in the Midbar. As we are told:

You shall dwell in sukkot…in order that your descendants may know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Israel” (Vayikra 23:32-33).

As such, to understand how we should relate to Sukkot, we must understand our original journey from Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisrael when we first dwelt in Sukkot.

At the beginning of Parshat Massei we find a list of 42 places where our ancestors passed en route to Eretz Yisrael and according to the Chiddushi HaRim, the reason why the Torah lists all these names is to hint to the journeys and experiences we have in our life. He writes that sometimes we camp at Marah (bitterness), sometimes we are in Miskah (sweetness). At times we are in Makheilot (gatherings), surrounded by friends. At times we feel that we are B’ktzei Hamidbar (the edges of the wilderness), feeling lonely and isolated. There are times we when reach Har Sinai, when it is easy for us to grow spiritually. But at other times we become caught up in Kivrot HaTa’avah (the graves of those who were greedy), where we struggle with our physical desires. Each one of us must journey from good times to bad times, from simchas to sad times, from achievement to disappointment, and then back to the best of times. This is because all of these moments are part of life’s journey. This insight is truly profound because it confirms the fact that in life, just like the journey of Bnei Yisrael, there are not only ups but there are also downs, and instead of blocking out the different emotions we experience in our life journey, our task is to validate them and consider the role they play in our life.

According to the Gemara, we learn from the words ‘you shall dwell in sukkot’ that the sukkah experience should approximate domestic conditions, which means we should dwell in a sukkah in the same way that we normally dwell.  Given this principle we are taught that if dwelling in a sukkah leads a person to feel discomfort, ‘Mitztaer Patur Min HaSukkah’ (Sukkah 25b) meaning they are exempt from dwelling in a sukkah. However, we have just noted that we should dwell in sukkot just as our ancestors did, and, during their journey in the wilderness, our ancestors experienced emotional highs and lows.

So here’s my question: When can we say that a person is exempt from a sukkah as they are mitztaer (ie. they are genuinely distressed by this experience) and when do we say that the frustrations they are experiencing are part of life and consequently, they are not exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah?

The Shulchan Aruch states that someone who is mitztaer is someone who cannot sleep because of the wind, or the bees or flies or a bad smell (Orach Chaim 640:4). However, this exemption only applies if the factor that is causing the person distress came after he had built the sukkah, and furthermore, you are only exempt if by removing yourself from the Sukkah, the reason why you are distressed is removed. However, and this is a case mentioned by the Gemara (Sukkah 25b), a mourner is not exempt from sitting in a sukkah given that their distress will not be significantly reduced by going to sit in the house.

The Rema (Orach Chaim 640:4), quoting the Trumat HaDeshen, adds an interesting factor. What if someone says that they don’t sleep as well in the sukkah. For example, they can’t stretch out in the same way that they do at home. Are they exempt? The Rema answers that this is not defined as Mitztaer and the person is obligated to sleep in this way. However, the Chacham Tzvi (Responsa, No. 94) is perplexed by this ruling because, according to him a textbook definition of mitztaer is not being able to sleep comfortably.

However, in considering this challenge from the Chacham Tzvi, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo p. 168) explains that the Rema is correct. This is because a sukkah is a ‘dirat arai’ – a  temporary dwelling, and to claim that not sleeping so well in a temporary dwelling is Mitztaer misses the point. As he says ‘this level of discomfort is part and parcel of the mitzvah of sukkot. It is as if the Torah directly tells you to experience this level of discomfort’.

When reading this comment, I was reminded of the Chidushei HaRim. Whilst exceptions are made when a person is greatly distressed, the fact is that life is full of ups and downs, as was our ancestors’ journey in the Midbar. Whilst the Torah does not require us to be miserable, it does not mean that the moment we are a little less comfortable we are exempt from the mitzvoth. In fact, we are only exempt from sitting in the sukkah if we are unable, due to our discomfort, to reflect on the fact that our ancestors dwelt in sukkot (see Taz on OC 640 note 7).This brings me to one of the most fascinating questions I have read for some years regarding the question of Mitztaer:

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Sefer Maadnei Shlomo: Moadim pp. 79-80) was once approached by a Bal Teshuvah with a question about the din of Mitztaer. He said that his family made fun of him dwelling in a sukkah and teased him which caused him great anguish. He asked whether he was exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah as he was a mitztaer.

Rav Auerbach analysed this question and said that it was not comparable to the case of the bees in the sukkah. The bees cause physical discomfort which stops a person from entering a sukkah. However, this man’s family caused emotional discomfort which, while unpleasant, does not stop a person from dwelling in a sukkah. Instead, in situations such as this, we are taught to be bold, steadfast and proud (see Tur, Orach Chaim 1). As the Chiddushei HaRim explains, this situation may be unpleasant, but is it part of our journey of life which has ups and downs.

I believe it is this concept of faith – in all that God sends us – which we learn from Sukkot. Therefore, while there is a special din of Mitztaer for the laws of Sukkot, we should know when to apply it and when not to. Life has ups and it has downs, and while the Torah does not require us to live with great pain and discomfort, one of the main lessons we learn from Sukkot is that we cannot control everything in life.

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